The Social Justice Collaborative is a nonprofit law office specializing in serving immigrants and their families. They provide representation in immigration hearings, particularly in asylum cases. They also represent immigrants in criminal court, and provide community advocacy. In the current justice ad immigration system, immigrants are not entitled to free legal representation, and therefore many immigrants do not have lawyers during their removal proceedings. The Social Justice Collaborative believes firmly in the universal need for high quality legal representation, regardless of immigration status or financial situation.
In 2016, this small law office served 1,500 clients, 450 of whom were children.
The SJC offers holistic lawyering, ensuring that clients’ dignity and broader needs are met, in addition to resolving their legal needs. In addition to Spanish, interpreters are available for Indigenous dialects, which are commonly spoken by their clients. All clients are connected with local social services, sometimes through appointments at the SJC itself, to ensure they receive all possible supports for success.
OUR WORK WITH THE SOCIAL JUSTICE COLLABORATIVE
We first worked with SJC in the summer of 2016, when we spent a day photographing and interviewing several families who were SJC clients. The office contacted us again late in 2016, saying that the materials we provided were so useful that they needed us to come back. In late January we returned and worked with 15 individuals and families, asking for stories and taking candid photos and formal portraits.
We met incredible people.
We met one couple who had just received news of their official visa permit the week before our visit. They laughed when they talked with the lawyer, relieved that the husband could work, and their six-year-old daughter could settle into school.
Another couple owned their own small store, living in a small apartment nearby and holding strong hopes for the future.
A woman spoke to us in Spanish, which she had learned since coming to the US. Her first language, Mam, was spoken in her Mayan community in Guatemala. She was fiercely proud of her children learning English and excelling in school, and believed strongly that their education would lead them to success. A very dynamic and hopeful speaker, she was quieter when she told us that although she had three children with her—ages 10, 12, and 16, her oldest child was still in Guatemala and that separation was very hard.
Another story of family separation came from the Maravilla family. The parents had come to the U.S. several years before, to work and send money back to support the family. This common story took a dark turn when a local gang began to threaten and extort the children. Their grandmother brought them to reunite with their parents. The grandmother was then deported, but the children became SJC clients and were granted asylum. Their father told us, “We hope to continue on here and to help our children get ahead in this country. They have dreams. Wilfredo wants to be a highway patrol officer. Our daughter wants to be a doctor. We are very proud of them, and they are good kids.”
Another family story from Guatemala involved Santa fleeing local violence with her two daughters, 5 and 12 years old at the time. She told us in Mam about their eight day bus journey through Mexico, and that when they were captured by Border Patrol they had been walking for five days in the desert, Santa carrying her younger daughter on her back. The SJC helped them all receive their legal status, and Santa said, She said, “Now I am really happy. Nothing is happening to me like it did before. People are friendly. My daughters are happy here.” She proudly showed us their documentation, and was delighted to report that both were thriving in school. She was, beyond everything, relieved that she and her daughters were safe.
What will the future hold?
This is a time of high anxiety for the immigrant communities, and many people sought reassurance from the lawyers that their status was not threatened by recent presidential actions. Again and again they were reassured that, at least for now, the visa determinations in their cases were secure. Many people were worried for family members left behind, and for what lies ahead in this country. After years of uncertainty, the political turmoil in the US has led to renewed fears for the future.
During our time with SJC, we saw again and again that people’s fears and questions were addressed with compassion and dignity.
One intern, who served as an interpreter, told us, “Even the way we describe our services, we want to make it clear that the lawyers are serving the people, and that we are there for them. This is especially important in these sensitive cases with people who have had difficult experiences.”
Another intern said, “If you can help one person, it has an enormous impact not just on them, but on their family... It is important to learn about the ways people—especially children—struggle in the system. How can you know and not care?”
She concluded, “It’s important to feel like I’m making a contribution. I’m a citizen, so I feel that obligation to do something. I’m lucky to be able to.”
This pairing of hopeful, determined clients and truly engaged lawyers and staff infused every interaction we witnessed at SJC.
One client expressed this so clearly:
“When I first found the law center I was so afraid that no one would help me, but they did. I was afraid because of everything that had happened to me in Guatemala. My brother said that it would be safer here, but I was still afraid. Now I am really happy. Nothing is happening to me like it did before. People are friendly. My daughters are happy here.”